17th February 2022 My professional background is in Customer Services and along the way, there have been many amusing incidents to brighten the everyday monotony. I suppose from childhood I was always a bit of a ‘people pleaser’ so it always seemed the right sort of job for me. I had intended to be a secretary when I left Risedale, having just spent three years studying shorthand, typewriting and book-keeping, but the first job I had was as Junior District Clerk in the District Office of JH Dewhurst the Butchers. There were three shops in Dalton Road in Barrow alone, but our District comprised thirteen shops reaching up the coast and into Cumbria as far Whitehaven and Penrith. The District Manager was Mr Forster, but he was rarely in the office, which left me and the District Clerk, Eileen Scott.
I suppose Eileen was in her forties at the time, so she seemed pretty old to me, being only seventeen, but we got along pretty well. Her secret vice (well, secret from Mr Forster, anyway) was that every afternoon she would bring out from her desk drawer, her transistor radio and switch on the Archers. For the uninitiated, this is a radio ‘soap’ drama, initially billed as ‘an everyday story of country folk’ and has been running since 1951! Every afternoon that Mr Forster wasn’t present, at two pm, out would come the radio and Eileen would lay down her pen and listen, eyes closed, almost inhaling the pleasure of her secret vice like a drug. In fact, she would do her best to ensure that Mr Forster had an appointment elsewhere at 2pm so that she could get her fix. When I thought about it much later, I wonder that she didn’t just have on the radio all the time – the staff in the shops certainly did, and it definitely would have cheered up our little office.
I only stayed in that job for about a year, as I got married and had a baby, so my next venture into customer service was a couple of years later, as a barmaid. My brother, Robert, was the Bar Manager at the Victoria Park Hotel, at the time owned by Cyril Thornber, who was a great friend of our dad. I went into the Hotel one Sunday evening, to see Rob about something, which just so happened to be the weekly venue for the ‘Apples and Pears Club’, a disco night held in the upstairs ballroom. This was served by two bars, the main one inside the ballroom which was staffed, strangely enough, by two older women, whose names elude me right now.
Just outside the main room, in the lobby at the top of the stairs was a small cocktail bar. The disco was always a busy night, and while I was there, Rob roped me into, first of all collecting glasses, then he told me to go and help out in the cocktail bar. This was staffed by a lovely guy with the exotic name of St Croix Southern. He was a very kind man, not that much older than me, probably around twenty-five or so, and more than a little bit camp, although I never found out if he was actually gay and I know there was an ex-wife somewhere in the past. He looked like a slimmer, younger version of Steve Wright, the Radio 2 presenter, with longish black hair, a large ‘pornstar’ moustache and round black rimmed glasses – well, it was the seventies, after all! We got along famously, and he taught me everything there was to know about bartending. At the end of the evening, my brother offered me a regular job, at the Apples & Pears, and any other functions that might require the cocktail bar to be opened. I ended up serving at Burns’ Night Suppers, private functions and even the Commissioning dinner for HMS Invincible! It was a job I loved, but unfortunately couldn’t give me the hours I needed to make a living and support myself.
Luckily, I was headhunted. The manager of the Theatre Bar, in Cavendish Street, Colin Somebody-or-Other (my memory for names is appalling!) was a regular on Sunday nights at the Vic, and had been impressed by my bartending skills. He offered me a full-time job at the Theatre Bar, which at the time was run by Ray and Pat Beecroft, who also owned a guest house in Abbey Road. Colin lived in at the Bar and was the full-time manager and ran things, while Ray and Pat spent most of their time with their pals. Ray was a big man with a big sense of humour, which more often than not verged on the sarcastic. He had a soft spot for his staff and was very good to us. Apart from Colin, there was another barmaid, also called Liz (with whom I am still in touch more than 40 years later!) and another, very short, feisty woman who did the cooking – again, her name escapes me – and who I was reminded of frequently later on while watching Carla, the waitress from Cheers on TV, who was played by Rhea Perlman. We were a motley crew indeed.
The pub was frequented by Vickers workmen, who thronged the place very weekday lunchtime for large slices of plate meat & potato pies almost drowned in mushy peas. That was my job at the end of all of my evening shifts – I had to go downstairs to the kitchen and put vast cauldrons of dried peas to soak, ready for ‘Carla’ to cook the next morning. I’ve never been able to touch mushy peas since!
The Theatre Bar was also a popular haunt among the ratings of HMS Splendid, and we had many lively nights with them. One New Year’s Eve, Ray had decided we would make it a fancy dress party with the theme: ‘Come as you were when the ship went down’. As you can imagine, people turned up in all sorts of states of undress, from pyjamas to underwear – one girl even came wrapped in just a bath towel! I had had no idea what to wear, (I was overweight even then, and had no intention of showing off my body) so Ray fixed me up with a costume and said he would give a prize to whoever could come up with the best reason for my outfit; if they could guess what I had been doing as the ship went down, as it were. I don’t remember if anyone did come up with a suggestion, but I’m not surprised since I wore a oil-stained boiler-suit, a pair of wellies and a gasmask!
My next job was at the Ostrich Inn, at Colnbrook near Slough, which I’ve written about before (see my blog ‘(Some of) The Best Years of our Lives’ so I won’t bore you again with that. I was there for six years and loved every minute of it. But when I met Trevor, the man who was to become my second husband, I had to leave as it was a live in job at the Ostrich.
So, I went into Customer Services properly and went to work for DHL International in their CS department at the London Head Office of DHL which was on the Great South West Road, Hounslow. I was taken on as a Customer Service Agent, after being interviewed by a lovely man called Graham Church. He took me under his wing and sat me with his best agents for my training. It was a call centre, mainly for taking bookings for couriers to collect parcels and documents for international delivery, tracking and tracing said parcels, and also for handling complaints. I had one or two fun experiences here – I was good at my job and I enjoyed it immensely.
One time, I took a call from a customer who was awaiting an important package from Switzerland. He had expected it to be delivered that morning, but it still had not arrived. He explained that it contained his new set of specially made false teeth; he’d been living on soup for two weeks and couldn’t wait for them to arrive so he could eat a proper meal! After taking the details and promising him I would find out where his parcel was and that I would call him back to tell him when he could expect delivery, I hung up the phone. I checked on my computer to find that the package had indeed come in to Heathrow but had arrived too late to go out for delivery that day so would be delivered the next morning. Feeling sorry for the poor man, desperate to sink his new teeth into a juicy steak, I slipped off into the bowels of the building where all the action took place. It was a huge open space filled with large ‘bins’ for sorting the packages into areas covered by different couriers. Checking in the bin marked for the customer’s postcode, I found his package and went to find one of the motorcycle couriers who were used for emergency or ‘special’ pick-ups or deliveries. Spying one of the bikers sitting doing nothing, I handed him the package and asked if he could make this special delivery. Off he went and I dashed up to phone the customer to tell him his teeth would be with him within the hour! He was so grateful he could barely speak. A few days later I was called into the CS Manager’s office. I thought I was in trouble for sending out a special courier, free of charge, but instead, Bill Howard, the Manager, took me to the front of the office, got everyone to hold their calls for a moment and described what had happened, before handing me a bottle of champagne, which the customer had sent, and a letter he had written to my boss, singing my praises!
Some customers weren’t quite so easy to pacify though. Within a year, I had risen to be a supervisor which meant standing at a workstation at the front of the large open-plan office watching a monitor to ensure that all the agents were spending most of their time taking calls and not slacking off. I noticed that one of the CSA’s was beckoning me to her work station so I went to see what was wrong. It seems that her customer was very upset and had started cursing and swearing at her, and she didn’t know how she should handle it, would I help please? I took her headset and announced to the irate man who I was, and how could I help him. Again, he was ‘effing and jeffing’ to beat the band so I said nothing, just waited for a break in his tirade before I even attempted to speak.
There was a brief lull, so I took my opportunity: “Now, Sir, I understand that you’re upset, and I want to help you, but I will not be spoken to in that manner. Unless you stop using such language I will hang up and you will be left with your problem. If you can tell me, politely, what is wrong, I will do my utmost to find a solution. Do we understand each other?” There was silence for a moment, then in a small voice, sans the swear words, he told me his problem. Unfortunately, this was a problem I could do nothing to help with, except to try and explain that the next-day delivery he was expecting could not happen as it was Christmas Day! His response was, “But I’m Jewish, I don’t keep Christmas!” Exit one dissatisfied customer.
Eventually, I transferred from DHL Hounslow to their depot at East Midlands, in Castle Donington. My future 2nd husband and I had decided to move as his father, who lived in Ruddington, Nottingham, was elderly and very frail and the rest of his family lived in the area, including his ex-wife and their daughter who lived in Loughborough. We bought a house in South Normanton, near Alfreton, and I made the 20 mile commute every day to the depot. I started in CS again there, but then a promotion to Operations Supervisor came up, which I applied for and got. This entailed me arriving at the office by about 6:30 am, picking up a DHL transit van which I drove to East Midlands Airport to collect the deliveries. These parcels would go out within our area which covered a vast acreage including most of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire.
One particular morning, I duly rocked up at the depot, collected the gear at the airport and promptly ran out of petrol, miles from anywhere. It was before the days of mobile phones so I had no alternative but to find a dwelling from where I could phone the office and organise a rescue. I managed to find a farmhouse down a long, very muddy lane, made my call and started the trek back to the side of the road where I had left the van.
Somehow, I managed to trip over and landed flat on my face on the equally muddy verge. I was livid. Heads were going to roll when I got back. I would find out who had been the last driver to use the van and who should have left it fuelled up and ready for me that morning. When help arrived in the form of my best buddy from work, Red (who later married my sister) he could do nothing but laugh hilariously at the sight of me, covered from head to toe in brown sticky stuff. He filled up the tank for me and drove away, still laughing. He couldn’t wait to get back and tell everyone what a state I was in and I knew I would get the micky taken out of me for at least the rest of that day, which did not improve my temper at all.
The roller shutters were up, so I drove straight into the warehouse, stepped out and slammed the van door shut. The couriers and office staff were doing their level best not to laugh and I knew some quip would be forthcoming before long. I looked around taking in everyone with my evil eye and snarled “NOT-ONE-FUCKING-WORD!” and stormed into my office, banging the door shut behind me and trying not to hear the roars of laughter emanating from my colleagues on the shop-floor. When I caught sight of myself in the ladies as I tried to clean up, I couldn’t blame them for laughing; I closely resembled a brown yeti!
I think I’ve probably rambled on enough about my working life for one day – but I’m only part way through this subject, so I’m sorry, but you can expect more of the same on another occasion, coming your way soon. In the meantime, I’d love to hear some of your amusing work experiences – please tell us in the box below! Until next week,